The live chat of the O’Reilly webinar that Christopher delivered on 18 April 2013 had some great questions, but not all of them made it out of the chat room and onto the air. I’m taking a short break from the release of the sci-fi survey to answer some of those questions.
Q: Adrian Warman asks: Humanoid robots (android) are not as efficient mechanically, yet we ‘prefer’ them (C3PO v. R2D2?) Will our preferences always override efficiency?
A: I think it depends on the context of use. Humans are good at humans. So, when robots have social functions, it’s best that they appear humanoid, while avoiding the Uncanny Valley (or see page 183 in the book for more). They should stick to the Canny Rise, to coin a term. When they need to do other, non-social things for us, like build cars, or vaccuum our floors, or mine for rare earths in asteroid belts, they should be fit to task.
Giving credit where credit is due, this is exactly the case with the Star Wars robots. C-3PO’s a protocol droid, for “human-cyborg relations” and R2-D2 is ostensibly an astromech maintenance droid. Their appearances match their functions.
This week, to celebrate both the holiday and the release of a new film in the Star Wars, universe, we pause the ongoing review to return briefly to the interfaces of an old, wretched entry in this ongoing saga.
Release Date: 17 November 1978 (USA)
Han and Chewbacca are flying back to the Wookie home world Kazook [sic] for Life Day (read: Christmas) but encounter some imperial trouble which delays them. Worried, Chewie’s wife Malla makes several video calls on an illegal and hidden rebel communication device to try and find his whereabouts, and receives assurances that they are on their way. Then she attempts to cook Bantha Surprise while watching a local-cable cooking show by the eccentric, four-armed Chef Gormaanda.
Family friend Saun Dann arrives with gifts for each of them—including an erotic VR brain implantation chair for Chewbacca’s father Itchy—even as the Empire declares martial law on the planet. Princess Leia and C-3PO contact Malla and ask Saun Dann to look after the family. Stormtroopers arrive at the door to search the place for Solo and Chewbacca. One of the Imperial officers inspects a hologram-box and spends a few minutes to enjoy a music video on it. Saun is coerced to leave.
Alone, the young Wookie named Lumpy proves to be a nuisance to the stormtroopers during their search, so the family distracts him by having him watch a cartoon of Boba Fett and Darth Vader. Finally satisfied that the rebels are not there, the stormtroopers leave and Lumpy finally checks out the video introduction to the electronics kit left him as a gift by Saun. He uses the kit to build a television and watch a live-broadcast local television program. The program is interrupted by the announcement of an Imperial curfew being imposed.
An individual stormtrooper, B4-7-11, returns to the home to threaten Lumpy, but is intercepted by Han and Chewie, who have finally arrived. They defeat him and Han leaves. Saun returns and answers a call from an Imperial officer, lying about the fate of B4-7-11 . Saun leaves, and the Wookies finally undertake their Life Day rituals.
The main ritual involves donning robes, passing into a ball of light that teleports them to the Tree of Life, where they are joined by other Wookies, as well as R2-D2, C-3PO, Han Solo, and Princess Leia, who have teleported here by some unknown means. The English-speaking characters make a speech before Leia sings a traditional song. This causes Chewbacca to go into a reverie, recalling his recent adventures with the Rebellion, always from odd out-of-body ,third-person perspectives, as if from camera droids littered about the galaxy.
After Chewbacca’s reverie, they return home, sit at the table for dinner, and bow their heads in reverent prayer.
On most overviews I include links to purchase or view the film. But as this entire film is available on YouTube, it is included, in full, below. Analyses follow.
To distract Lumpy while she tends to dinner, Malla sits him down at a holotable to watch a circus program. She leans down to one of the four control panels inset around the table’s edge, presses a few buttons, and the program begins.
In the program small volumetric projections of human (not Wookie) performers appear on the surface of the table and begin a dance and acrobatic performance to a soundtrack that is, frankly, ear-curdling.
When she wonders about Chewbacca’s whereabouts, Malla first turns to the Imperial-issue Media Console. The device sits in the living space, and consists of a personal console and a large wall display. The wall display mirrors the CRT on the console. The console has a QWERTY keyboard, four dials, two gauges, a sliding card reader, a few red and green lights on the side, and a row of randomly-blinking white lights along the front.
Public Service Requests
As Malla approaches it, it is displaying an 8-bit kaleidoscope pattern and playing a standard-issue “electronics” sound. Malla presses a handful of buttons—here it’s important to note the difficulty of knowing what is being pressed when the hand we’re watching is covered in a mop—and then moves through a confusing workflow, where…
She presses five buttons
She waits a few seconds
As she is pressing four more buttons…
…the screen displays a 22-character string (a password? A channel designation?) ↑***3- ↓3&39÷ ↑%63&-:::↓
A screen flashes YOU HAVE REACHED TRAFFIC CONTROL in black letters on a yellow background
She presses a few more buttons, and another 23-character string appears on screen ↑***3- XOXOO OXOOX XOOXO-↑ (Note that the first six characters are identical to the first six characters of the prior code. What’s that mean? And what’s with all the Xs and Os? Kisses and hugs? A binary? I checked. It seems meaningless.)
An op-art psychedelic screen of orange waves on black for a few seconds
A screen flashes NO STARSHIPS IN AREA
Malla punches the air in frustration.
So the first string is, what, a channel? And how do the five buttons she pressed map to that 22 character string? A macro? Why drop to a semi-binary for one command? And are the hugs-and-kisses an instruction? Is that how you write Shyriiwook? Why would it be Latin letters and Unicode characters rather than, say, Aurebesh? Who designed this command language? This orthography? This interface? Maybe it was what this guy was assigned to do after he was relieved of duty.
When technology fails to find her sweetheart, Malla turns to her social network. She first uses her Illegal Rebel Comms device to talk to Luke and R2-D2 (next post), and afterwards, returns to the Media Console, which is back to its crappy TSR-80 BASIC-coded screen saver mode.
She taps a few keys (a macro?)
A new code appears: ↑***C- ↓&&&0- 446B°- TP%C↓
The display reads: SUB TERMINAL 4468 (or 446E or maybe 446B. It’s a square font and Malla’s hairy arm is in the way.)
She presses a few more keys
The screen displays STAND BY for a few seconds
Then the word CONNECT flashes a few times
She presses a single button
TRADING POST WOOKIE PLANET C flashes
A live camera feed displays of the trading post
So it’s actually nice to see the first 5 characters of the string be different since this is a different mode: public function (↑***3-) versus video phone (↑***C-). It made me wonder if the codes were some sort of four part IP address, but then I saw the traffic control command is only three lines, so it’s not a consistent enough pattern. So I was hoping to find some secret awesomeness, but no.
Here’s the flow chart as completed by the demoted Stormtrooper designer (translated from the Aurebesh).
Not only is the interaction terrible, but it’s not really your device anyway. The Empire can take control of these screens for government business, like paging errant Stormtroopers. In these cases, an alarm sounds in the house, and then the Empire Video Feed comes online. No bizarre character strings. No flashing text. No arbitrary key presses.
After all that, an Easy Mode
As if that wasn’t enough, the thing works differently later in the show. After he returns to the tree house, Saun uses the system to call the Imperial Officer to cover Han and Chewie’s murderous tracks with a lie. To make the call, all Saun has to do is insert an identification card, press the same key on the keyboard six times, and with no weird codes or substation identification interstitials, he is connected immediately to the Imperial officer. After the officer terminates their call, Saun presses another button a few times and removes his card. That’s it. It was almost easy.
This tells us that the system can work fairly simply. If you’re calling the Empire. Or if you’re high enough social status and have the card to prove it. This technology just sucks. Maybe this is why the rebellion started.
Hidden behind a bookshelf console is the family’s other comm device. When they first use it in the show, Malla and Itchy have a quick discussion and approach the console and slide two panels aside. The device is small and rectangular, like an oscilloscope, sitting on a shelf about eye level. It has a small, palm sized color cathode ray tube on the left. On the right is an LED display strip and an array of red buttons over an array of yellow buttons. Along the bottom are two dials.
Without any other interaction, the screen goes from static to a direct connection to a hangar where Luke Skywalker is working with R2-D2 to repair some mechanical part. He simply looks up to the camera, sees Malla and Itchy, and starts talking. He does nothing to accept the call or end it. Neither do they. Continue reading →
The groomer is a device for sale at the Wookie Planet Trading Post C by local proprietor Saun Dann. It looks like a dust brush with an OXO designed, black, easy-grip handle, with a handful of small silver pushbuttons on one side (maybe…three?), and a handful of black buttons on the other (again, maybe three). It’s kind of hard to call it exactly, since this is lower-res than a recompressed I Can Haz Cheezburger jpg.
Let’s hear Saun describe it to the vaguely menacing Imperial shopper in his store.
Besides shaving and hair trimming, it’s guaranteed to lift stains off clothing, faces, and hands. Cleans teeth, fingers and toenails, washes eyes, pierces ears, calculates, modulates, syncopates life rhythms, and can repeat the Imperial Penal Code—all 17 volumes— in half the time of the old XP-21. Just the thing to keep you squeaky clean.
There are so many, many problems with this thing. On every level it’s wretched. Continue reading →
Hello, readers. Hope your Life Days went well. The blog is kicking off 2016 by continuing to take the Star Wars universe down another peg, here, at this heady time of its revival. Yes, yes, I’ll get back to The Avengers soon. But for now, someone’s in the kitchen with Malla.
After she loses 03:37 of her life calmly eavesviewing a transaction at a local variety shop, she sets her sights on dinner. She walks to the kitchen and rifles through some translucent cards on the counter. She holds a few up to the light to read something on them, doesn’t like what she sees, and picks up another one. Finding something she likes, she inserts the card into a large flat panel display on the kitchen counter. (Don’t get too excited about this being too prescient. WP tells me models existed back in the 1950s.)
In response, a prerecorded video comes up on the screen from a cooking show, in which the quirky and four-armed Chef Gourmaand shows how to prepare the succulent “Bantha Surprise.”
And that’s it for the interaction. None of the four dials on the base of the screen are touched throughout the five minutes of the cooking show. It’s quite nice that she didn’t have to press play at all, but that’s a minor note.
The main thing to talk about is how nice the physical tokens are as a means of finding a recipe. We don’t know exactly what’s printed on them, but we can tell it’s enough for her to pick through, consider, and make a decision. This is nice for the very physical environment of the kitchen.
This sort of tangible user interface, card-as-media-command hasn’t seen a lot of play in the scifiinterfaces survey, and the only other example that comes to mind is from Aliens, when Ripley uses Carter Burke’s calling card to instantly call him AND I JUST CONNECTED ALIENS TO THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL.
Of course an augmented reality kitchen might have done even more for her, like…
Cross-referencing ingredients on hand (say it with me: slab of tender Bantha loin)with food preferences, family and general ratings, budget, recent meals to avoid repeats, health concerns, and time constraints to populate the tangible cards with choices that fit the needs of the moment, saving her from even having to consider recipes that won’t work;
Make the material of the cards opaque so she can read them without holding them up to a light source;
Augmenting the surfaces with instructional graphics (or even air around her with volumetric projections) to show her how to do things in situ rather than having to keep an eye on an arbitrary point in her kitchen;
Slowed down when it was clear Malla wasn’t keeping up, or automatically translated from a four-armed to a two-armed description;
Shown a visual representation of the whole process and the current point within it;
…but then Harvey wouldn’t have had his moment. And for your commitment to the bit, Harvey, we thank you.
With the salacious introduction, “Itchy, I know what you’d like,” Saun Dann reveals himself as a peddler of not just booby trapped curling irons, but also softcore erotica! The Life Day gift he gives to the old Wookie is a sexy music video for his immersive media chair.
The chair sits in the family living room, and has a sort of helmet fixed in place such that Itchy can sit down and rest his head within it. On the outside of the helmet are lights that continuously blink out of sync with each other and seem unrelated to the actual function of the chair. Maybe a fairy-lights power indicator?
When Imperial troopers intrude to search the house, one of the bullying officers takes interest in a device sitting on the dining table. It’s the size of a sewing machine, with a long handle along the top. It has a set of thumb toggles along the top, like old cassette tape recorder buttons.
Saun convinces the officer to sit down, stretches the thin script with a bunch of pointless fiddling of a volume slider and pantomimed delays, and at last fumbles the front of the device open. Hinged at the bottom like a drawbridge, it exposes a small black velvet display space. Understandably exasperated, the officer stands up to shout, “Will you get on with it?” Saun presses a button on the opened panel, and the searing chord of an electric guitar can be heard at once.
Inside the drawbridge-space a spot of pink light begins to glow, and mesmerized officer who, moments ago was bent on brute intimidation, but now spends the next five minutes and 23 seconds grinning dopily at the volumetric performance by Jefferson Starship.
During the performance, 6 lights link in a pattern in the upper right hand corner of the display. When the song finishes, the device goes silent. No other interactions are seen with it.
Many questions. Why is there a whole set of buttons to open the thing? Is this the only thing it can play? If not, how do you select another performance?Is it those unused buttons on the top? Why are the buttons unlabeled? Is Jefferson Starship immortal? How is it that they have only aged in the long, long time since this was recorded? Or was this volumetric recording somehow sent back in time? Where is the button that Saun pressed to start the playback? If there was no button, and it was the entire front panel, why doesn’t it turn on and off while the officer taps (see above)? What do the little lights do other than distract? Why is the glow pink rather than Star-Wars-standard blue? Since volumetric projections are most often free-floating, why does this appear in a lunchbox? Since there already exists ubiquitous display screens, why would anyone haul this thing around? How does this officer keep his job?
Perhaps it’s best that these questions remain unanswered. For if anything were substantially different, we would risk losing this image, of the silhouette of the lead singer and his microphone. Humanity would be the poorer for it.